janus v. AFSCME

Supreme Court decision in Janus deals blow to nation’s teachers unions

Teachers unions absorbed a deep but expected blow on Wednesday from the nation’s highest court.

The 5-4 ruling in the case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. That could mean a steep decline in union membership and dues, which in turn will limit the unions’ political power — the hope of the conservative groups that helped bring the case.

“We conclude that public-sector agency-shop arrangements violate the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. He emphasized that employees must also affirmatively opt in to union membership, potentially making unions’ efforts to keep members even more challenging.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned: “Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

“Judicial disruption does not get any greater than what the Court does today,” Kagan wrote.

Unions have been preparing for this outcome, which seemed like an inevitability after Donald Trump won the presidential election. That gave him the opportunity to replace Antonin Scalia, whose unexpected death led to the 4-4 tie in a similar case two years ago.

Publicly, teachers unions have put on a brave face while acknowledging the challenges this decision would bring. Twenty-two states currently allow unions to collect those agency fees.

“Don’t count us out,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted after the decision’s release. “While today the thirst for power trumped the aspirations and needs of communities and the people who serve them, workers are sticking with the union because unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has planned for staff cutbacks in anticipation of the ruling and projects that 300,000 members will leave. In California, unions have gotten laws passed designed to help keep teachers in the fold, including ensuring school districts provide unions with teacher contact information and opportunities to meet with new members. In New York City, the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which counts nearly 200,000 members, has knocked on thousands of classroom doors to tell teachers about the case and persuade them to stick with the union.

“Our union will remain strong, and we will not be silenced,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday.

The decision will have less of an impact in the 28 where mandatory fees were already banned, like Tennessee.

To critics who say teachers unions have been a barrier to school reform efforts, the case presents another opportunity to push for their vision. Those critics include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has assailed unions as “defenders of the status quo.”

A number of states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, have worked to cripple unions in a manner consistent with Janus. In both states, union membership has dropped and union dues have fallen, though significantly more so in Wisconsin than Michigan. “We’re already in a post-Janus world,” a union spokesperson in Michigan recently told Chalkbeat.

Research subsequently found that in Wisconsin, where new laws severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt out of unions, student achievement suffered and teacher compensation fell. In Michigan, weaker unions and tougher evaluations led to a spike in teachers turnover in disadvantaged schools, another study found.

The decision comes as teachers across the country are increasingly energized politically: running for office, pushing for higher salaries, and protesting DeVos.

“It’s like the best of times and the worst of times,” said Weingarten in Education Week.

That suggests that if Janus weakens unions in a way that means that they can’t bargain for higher pay, it could encourage the kind of teacher uprisings and strikes recently seen in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia to spread.

The legal case turned on the First Amendment: plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the state of Illinois, argued that requiring him to pay union fees amounted to forcing him to support a political organization, violating his free speech rights. Janus is not required to join the union, and public employees like him can instead choose to pay “agency fees” to cover bargaining costs rather than full union membership costs. Unions argue that this avoids a free-rider problem, where workers can benefit from union contract negotiation without paying for it; Janus argued that such negotiations are inherently political.

In a unanimous 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that although government can’t make employees join a union, they can require payment of agency fees. Today’s decision overrules that case.

breaking

Indianapolis Public Schools teachers union president out after alleged mishandling of more than $100,000

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Rhondalyn Cornett, center, at a 2017 IPS board meeting. Cornett resigned under pressure from the state teachers union.

The president of Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union has resigned under pressure after an investigation indicated she had mishandled more than $100,000 over several years, the state’s largest teachers union announced Saturday.

The Indiana State Teachers Association investigation came after a member of the district union filed a complaint with the state union in June over how Rhondalyn Cornett operated the group. An audit completed this week “indicates serious financial mismanagement and misappropriation,” a statement from an ISTA spokeswoman said.

ISTA’s investigation discovered that Cornett had used her IEA debit card to withdraw about $100,000 in cash for personal use, spokeswoman Kim Clements-Johnson said. She said there were also additional debit card transactions that could not be accounted for, but she declined to elaborate on the amount of those expenses. The money in question has not been recovered, Clements-Johnson said.

In a text message, Cornett said she had no comment.

Cornett was asked to resign and did so effective Thursday, the statement said. Ronald Swann, the district union’s vice president, is now president, and helped lead the investigation and audit, the statement said.

“Because of the IEA president’s failure to meet her obligations toward sound financial management of members’ dues dollars, she has complied with a demand that she resign,” the statement said. “New local leadership has assumed control and are prepared to deal with the issue and move the Association forward in a positive direction.”

ISTA has taken control of the district union’s finances and will continue to manage them for the next two years. The statement said ISTA has also filed an insurance claim to possibly get back dues money for union members. The state union said it might also consider legal action.

The state union reported the mismanagement to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Organized Crime Section. It is not yet clear if any crimes have been committed, the statement said.

Cornett has been a teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools since 1994. She has been president of IEA since 2013, and she was reelected last spring.

IEA is a local association affiliated with the statewide union, which is Indiana’s branch of the National Education Association. The Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union represents about 900 members, according to a state report. That’s just under half the educators in the bargaining unit.

The IPS union, in addition to the statewide union, has often pushed back against some of the rapid changes in Indianapolis Public Schools, including the district’s partnerships with outside charter or nonprofit operators to run what are known as innovation schools. While those schools still fall under the district’s umbrella, its teachers are employed by the operators, rather then the district, so they are not able to join the district’s union.

Earlier this week, the teachers unions won a political victory at the ballot box. Two candidates who were endorsed by the political arms of the state and local teachers unions won seats in the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The candidates ousted two school-choice friendly incumbents with the help of the IPS Community Coalition, a group of community advocates critical of the district administration that has received funding from the NEA.

Student Voice

Students walk out of Memphis school demanding to know why principal and teacher were fired

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School protest administrators firing a teacher and principal.

About 30 students walked out of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning, three months after school administrators fired the principal, and days after firing a beloved teacher.

Unease has filled the North Memphis charter school since the staffing changes. Teachers have quit, and students and parents do not believe they have received clear answers from administrators about the firings.

According to internal emails, principal Reginald Williams was fired because of the school’s poor performance on 2018 state tests — the same computerized test state lawmakers tried to block from negatively impacting teachers, students, and schools after major technical glitches.

Three student leaders gathered parent permission slips from classmates and walked out shortly after 9 a.m. with chants of “We want answers!” and “We want justice!” But teachers discouraged others from following, students said, while administrators lined the hallways and doors. Eventually, more students joined in protest as school leaders called an assembly to address student concerns. Student leaders say they still don’t have the answers they were looking for.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
From left, Kiahna Noel, Semaj Buckhalter, and Markayla Crawford led a student protest at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School on Tuesday morning.

“When he was our principal, the school was OK. The school was good. And now we don’t have a principal and the school is going up in chaos,” said Cherelle Bledsoe, a senior who has attended the school since sixth grade. “Teachers are quitting because it’s unprofessional, because it’s not organized.”

“He was a good principal,” said Tamia Kerr, a senior who came back to Memphis Academy on Tuesday morning for the protest after transferring to another high school. “They made it sound like he up and left, but they fired him.”

Talya Garrett, one of the interim co-principals, declined to comment on the students’ concerns. Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, said he supported students expressing themselves — even in protest.

“In this world we live in and on a day like today where the vote is so precious, it’s important to hear the voices while still encouraging the continuation of the academic instruction,” he said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

Johnson appointed two administrators, Garrett and Trent Watson, to share the responsibility of interim principal after firing Williams. The school serves about 420 students.

Parents and their supporters flooded a board meeting last month, where it was revealed Williams had not resigned, though Johnson said the two had come to a “mutual agreement.” Patricia Ange, an ACT prep teacher, supported Williams at the meeting and was fired Friday.

“She is the best teacher at MAHS, and I’m going to stand my ground for her,” said Kiahna Noel, a senior who organized the protest. “She brought our ACT scores up, she encourages people who want to drop out to continue. Half of these kids going to college because of Ms. Ange, and she going to get fired for speaking her mind? That’s not right.”

When Chalkbeat asked about claims of teachers locking doors and asked for details about teachers and students leaving for other schools, Johnson directed questions to the network’s lawyer, Florence Johnson. She said no teachers have quit and no students have withdrawn. She declined to respond to the students’ allegations.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Nicole Smith shares text messages from her daughter, which prompted her to come to the school.

Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift held a small protest at the school earlier Tuesday morning and returned when leaders heard students had planned a walkout. Sarah Carpenter, the group’s executive director, has a granddaughter at the school, and said Memphis Lift wants Ange and Williams to come back to the school and for Johnson to be fired.

“We’re going to stand out here every day until every parent knows what’s going on,” she told one mother dropping off her student at the school.

Nicole Smith came to the school after her daughter texted her that students were being held in class, “so we won’t be heard because so many kids asking for answers.” If things don’t change soon, she plans to withdraw her daughter, a senior, from the school.

“If the top is good and strong, everybody else will be strong,” Smith said. “When you have a weak leader, everything else will fall. He [Williams] was a great leader because he knew how to be firm and a good educator at the same time.”